In the 1929 MGM musical The Broadway Melody, Bessie Love has a crying scene. Lots (lots) of movies have crying scenes, but this one is different. It’s not done in the typical Hollywood diva style, with glycerin streaks shining, like snail tracks, down perfectly powdered cheeks. Nor is it the quivering ridge of moisture held just at the eyelids’ breaking point. That’s crying for the camera. Love cries like a human being. Her eyes puff up, her mouth twists, her head and torso shake, her breath comes in tiny, hiccoughing gasps. She starts, stops, struggles for control, at one point even giggling as if finding humor in her pain; then she gives in to her grief. You’re aware of how physical her actions are, how her body is rent by feeling. And she looks awful—unglamorous and drab, emitting small, high-pitched cries, like an abandoned puppy. It breaks your heart. Love makes her weeping a private act. She gives you the intimacy of overwhelming misery—when we’re buried so deep inside ourselves, conscious only of our raw hurt, that we have no sense of what lies beyond the boundary of our skin.
Probably no one remembers Bessie Love today, but she’s the best thing about The Broadway Melody. She’s “Hank” Mahoney, a small-time Midwestern vaudeville trouper hoping, like all troupers, to make it big on Broadway, along with her sister, and stage partner, Queenie (Anita Page), and her fiancé Eddie (Charles King), a song-and-dance man who’s written the title tune for them. Throughout the film Love is like a firecracker, flaring up, whooshing around, burning the air around her. Then she’s discovers that Eddie and Queenie have fallen in love and she’s in the way. You can see how Love reacts, by varying her energy, pulling it in, keeping her body still, her eyes open and staring. She’s frozen in shock. Except for the eyes; in the close-ups they stir with a mysterious depth of feeling, like Chaplin’s. But she’s too proud, too loyal, too strong, to crumble in front of the others. She’s a trouper, by golly, and troupers are tough. It’s only when she sends the boyfriend away to find the sister, with a made-up story about how she’s never loved him, that everything collapses. But there’s still the trouper’s discipline: She cries while she’s cleaning off her stage makeup, the camera staying on her face as it turns greasy from a mix of cold cream and tears.
We liked The Broadway Melody, but we really loved Love in it. Fans of classic Hollywood musicals might find her off-putting—she has too much energy, slamming her effects across the nonexistent footlights to the rearest of rear balconies. She doesn’t calibrate what she’s doing. But she’s real; she’s human, she’s tough, she’s sympathetic, she moves and talks in ways you believe; she gives. We liked her rawness and energy, like a colt discovering it has legs and can run. She’s completely physical in how she performs. Arguing with a snide chorus girl (Mary Doran) in one scene, she literally hurls herself across a piano to grab the offending chorine. Even in stillness Love is expressive, her bare back turned to the camera an eloquent emotional instrument.
And Love’s very physicality conveys the loneliness of the trouper’s life. The practiced way she stands over a hotel sink, clad only in her underwear as she scrubs her stockings, tells you that Hank’s done this a million times. This is the only life she knows, a hardscrabble, rootless existence with the added responsibility of raising a kid sister. Love and Page play their scenes in a way that, seen today, may smack of Sapphic ardor. They kiss each other on the lips and snuggle in the same bed. But you get from Love what you could call the pair’s unspoken, emotional backstory. Theirs is a life lived out of suitcases, in cheap, dreary rooms, where you get by on credit and a smile, and where a suspicious maid announces she’s counting the towels (“How high can you count?”, sneers Hank). All Hank really has is her sister and her ambition that they reach the top. When the sister finally decamps for marriage and a settled life, Hank has only her gnawing ambition to keep her company, and Love’s eyes gives you a sense that that may no longer be enough.
What you might call the trouper ethos is the essence of The Broadway Melody. It’s not the first film musical about the backstage world of puttin’ on a show (The Jazz Singer is first in that, as in other things). But it’s first in several other important ways: It was MGM’s first musical, it was the studio’s first All-Talking! All-Singing! All-Dancing! film, and it was the first musical (and the first sound film) to win the Best Picture Academy Award. (Bessie Love was nominated in the Best Actress category; in our humble opinion, she should have won.) And it helped establish the template, setting up the genre’s clichés (which were probably old back then). There’s the ruthless-but-frazzled producer with little money but lots of gall (Eddie Kane); the songwriter-slash-singer with ideas for a show (King); the wisecracking veteran with a heart of gold (Love); the innocent chorine with the lucky breaks (Page); and the lecherous admirer with too many hands (Kenneth Thomson). It’s about Broadway, baby, the street of a million dreams, a million heartbreaks, and a million such plots. And it’s about girls, lots of girls, lines of ‘em, flashing their faces, arms, legs, and anything else that can get past the censor.
The film is also about a new art form: The Hollywood musical. In that, it has a rawness similar to Love’s. There’s not yet the polish, the lacquered gleam, of the 1940s-50s musicals. Viewers need to keep in mind that TBM is a first; it’s an art form still making its way. Production began on the film during 1928, soon after sound itself started; it may look really old, but it’s new. It’s like Medieval painting before the discovery of perspective; the figures are dynamic but somewhat crude, lacking depth. It’s so new that the director, Harry Beaumont, seems unsure where to put the camera during a musical routine, how far or close to keep it, or where to cut—that’s how raw it looks. During the full staging of the title number, for example, we observe King singing the title song as if from the back of a theater, the line of chorus girls behind him looking as flat and tiny as a row of paper dolls. Not until the specialty act comes on, featuring a toe-tap dancer (tap-dancing on pointe, which goes back to the early 1900s; this little item really dates the film), does the camera come in close, as if watching from the front rows. It also bisects the girl onscreen, cutting between her swaying upper torso and close-ups of her tapping feet (just to leave us wincing); we’re given a perspective that most theater viewers can’t get.
The full staging of “The Broadway Melody,” with Charles King leading off. Anita Page and Bessie Love appear with him at the beginning; Eddie Kane is the producer who cuts them out of the number; Mary Doran is the snide chorine in the wings. (We love how King is more worried about getting his routine right than about the issue of the sisters being kicked out—the performance is what matters.) The chorus girls enter at the 2:00 mark:
No doubt the immobility of the early sound cameras resulted in such visual awkwardness. And probably the only reference point for any director staging a film musical number would have come from the stage. But stage space is not movie space; and a choreographed routine is not yet understood here in cinematic terms. In “The Wedding of the Painted Doll,” there’s a lot going on, with dancers all over the screen. They whirl, flip, and cartwheel, while girls fly across the stage to land in the arms of their porteurs, who stand grimly braced for impact, as if waiting for a rocket attack. But the number looks static and incoherent; the dancers seem to pile on top of each other in a mushy mass. Seeing this, you understand what a genius Busby Berkeley was and what a revolution he accomplished in staging dance routines onscreen. He understood that in staging big-scale musical numbers for cinema, you crash through the proscenium and make the film—camera, editing, lighting—move.
“The Wedding of the Painted Doll”: This sequence was originally shot in Technicolor, but the color version is now presumed lost; only the black-and-white version exists (the routine starts at the .55 mark; pray forgive the charming cartoon clip at the beginning):
You may also find yourself wondering: Was TBM really made by MGM? The greatest producer ever of movie musicals? (Arthur Freed’s name is on the film’s credits, but only as a lyricist.) Even the great studios had to take baby steps, and MGM seems to be taking them here with less-than-stellar steppers. Knees and feet are not stretched, arms are limp, footwork is sloppy. (And not everyone sings in tune.) Gene Kelly was still only a gleam in the camera’s eye. And it’s painfully evident that Anita Page is no dancer. Page was a burgeoning MGM star at the end of the silent era (she has major roles in Our Dancing Daughters and While The City Sleeps). Perhaps she was cast as box office insurance. Or perhaps because she was known as “The Girl With The Most Beautiful Face in Hollywood,” since the story emphasizes Queenie’s beauty. We wondered about that, seeing her here. Page looks large and rather bovine on camera, and she has a gratingly thin, nasal voice (she’s best in scenes when she gets angry and sneers). Physically she’s a bad match with the tiny, hard-angled Love—she’s like a huge slab of butter next to a knife. Love herself was not a great dancer, but she’s a snappy mover; she can ‘phrase’ a sequence with rhythm and varying emphasis. And she’s got that key instinct of the song-and-dance performer: She knows what’s she’s doing on stage and why she’s out there.
Bessie Love and Anita Page perform “The Boy Friend.” Note how Page slips off to the side when the dancing begins:
We liked the film best at those moments when it focuses on the performers and their backstage life. Too often its story bogs down in a melodramatic side plot about Hank and Eddie trying to keep Queenie from becoming the plaything of the wealthy stagedoor johnny with One Thing on his mind. We got a bit impatient with all the hysteria flying around about whether Queenie will lose her virtue or not (so what if he screws her, we found ourselves thinking). But in the scenes surrounding the chaos of a Broadway opening the film finds its rhythm. It has a realness, and a nearness to that milieu, that later, much more technically proficient musicals can’t capture. We liked the slang: “Nix cracking!”; “It’s cream in the can!”; “Sca-rew!” We liked how the plump chorines rush around dressing rooms in costumed confusion: Girls in tutus, girls in tights, girls in shorts, girls in undress; and there’s even a tenor in Roman centurion getup. (He’s in the film’s most bizarre number, something about floating on a barge of love. It looks like an outtake from Cleopatra—the Theda Bara version.) And we liked the little details of stage life, such as how the chorus girls roll their stockings down to their ankles, or how the wardrobe mistress and the costume designer snipe over the size of stage hats. Or how comfortable the performers are with each other’s bodies: In one scene, King, Love, and Page argue in the wings while King stands in his BVDs, utterly unself-conscious of his state of undress. We even liked how a mistake was left in the “Painted Doll” number, when a dancer slips but recovers herself and keeps on going—just as would happen onstage. What a trouper.
If The Broadway Melody reminds you of anything today, it’s probably Singin’ in the Rain, which was a kind of ‘meta’ commentary on the earlier film, re-using many of its songs and poking fun at how Hollywood, via the film musical, adjusted to sound. The later film’s jabs zing close in the scene when Charles King sings “You Were Meant For Me” to Anita Page. An offscreen orchestra plays a brief prelude just before he starts crooning, and damn if we didn’t react the way Bob Hope does in Road to Utopia, when every time the music starts he looks around to see where the hell it’s coming from. King appears to be singing directly on camera, not pre-recorded, as became standard practice. This ‘live’ intensity can be exciting; it’s like watching kinescopes of 1950s’ live television shows, where an actor’s concentration is jacked up because the stakes are higher; you can see how King’s face strains to hit or hold a high note, and how his breath flutters Page’s hair. King was a real Broadway performer, and he’s at his best in the opening number, done at a song publishing studio, where he first introduces “The Broadway Melody.” Watch how his stage instincts take over here, in the way he smiles and moves and in the way his gestures shape themselves to the words and rhythm. He gives you a sense of what those times were like: He’s pumping, he’s selling his song, it was how an ambitious popular composer or singer then grabbed his chance, performing directly to the listener. “Hot dog!”, he exclaims on finishing. King’s not the most talented or appealing singer and dancer, but in this instance, he gives the number heart. He loves what he’s doing and he wants to share that love.
The initial rendering of “The Broadway Melody,” with Charles King plugging his song to James Gleason (one of the film’s co-writers) and company. Various performers are plugging their own songs in the opening montage:
Audiences responded to that love (the film grossed over four million dollars), and MGM followed its success with a series: The Broadway Melody of 1936, 1938, and 1940. (It was also remade as Two Girls on Broadway in 1940, starring Joan Blondell and Lana Turner.) All three Broadway Melody follow-ups center on Eleanor Powell, usually as an innocent out-of-towner aspiring to stardom, who then gets the lucky break and makes it big on Broadway, with the whole town laid at her madly tapping feet. There’s never a doubt that plucky Powell won’t make it; it’s, as Hank would say, cream in the can. The mood is different in these later films; it’s upbeat and proper, and Powell dazzles us with her constant smile as well as her taps. In contrast, the original TBM ends with Hank returning to the hinterlands for another slog of trouping, promising that she’ll be back on the Great White Way in six months. The film doesn’t give you any reassurance that this will happen. “Troupers are all tramps,” says Hank’s manager (Jed Prouty), and this footsore tramping may be all the life Hank will ever know. There probably will be no bright lights in her future.
A recording of Charles King singing “You Were Meant For Me” (which, along with “Painted Doll” and “The Broadway Melody,” reappeared in Singin’ in the Rain):
The real heirs of The Broadway Melody may be Warner Bros.’ own backstage-musical series, the Gold Digger films, which also began in 1929 with Gold Diggers of Broadway, coming six months after MGM’s effort (only two-strip Technicolor fragments of it exist today). That film was also a hit, and Warners followed it up with Gold Diggers of 1933 (a partial remake of the earlier film), of 1935, of 1937, and in Paris. There were also the kissin’ cousins, 42nd Street, Dames, and Footlight Parade. Like the original Broadway Melody, these films present, in varying combinations, the Producer, the Singer-Songwriter, the Experienced Trouper, the Innocent Chorine, and the Lecher(s), who yet are all focused on one thing: Making it on Broadway. Unlike MGM’s more staid musicals (in which Eleanor Powell behaves with the utmost decorum), the WB efforts are sassy, sexy, and cynical, with a streetwise impudence that’s the hallmark of the tougher, Depression-seasoned sensibility of Warners’ early-30s films. They’ve also got TBM’s streak of unsentimental melancholy, as reflected in Warner Baxter’s end-of-the-line exhaustion in the great 42nd Street. Not everyone makes it; not everyone’s dream comes true. And not everyone comes back a star.
But that dream of making it is what Bessie Love gave us, all the way back in 1929. By the time she made TBM, she had been in films for nearly fifteen years, beginning in silent cinema, while still a teenager, with D.W. Griffith. In the 1920s she was a popular leading actress, alternating between flapper roles and sweet young things; she even danced the Charleston onscreen several years before Joan Crawford did. Love reached her pinnacle with her Oscar nomination for TBM, though soon afterwards, in a sad reflection of life-imitating-art, her career went into decline. She moved to England and become a character actress, appearing in small roles on film and TV. Although not a stage performer, she obviously knew, in her gut, the meaning of what it is to be a trouper. The clichés of heartbreak and desire are not clichés as Love portrays them; they’re alive in her eyes and voice and body. She breathed life into those old chestnuts right at the moment when films themselves were once again new; and she lives them out on screen, making them new for us.
BONUS CLIP ONE: Bessie Love performs “I Never Knew I Could Do A Thing Like That” (frequently more in the air than on the ground) from Hollywood Revue of 1929:
BONUS CLIP TWO: Bessie Love and Gus Shy perform “Gee But I’d Like to Make You Happy” from Good News (1930):